Photo: Michigan State's Colby Wollenman fights for position. Below, Wollenman, an earlier role, and other scout team members prepare to enter the game for mop-up duty.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Colby Wollenman’s statistics printed at the bottom of the Michigan State’s pre-season media guide list merely 21 games of mop-up duty – including a career-high 2.1 minutes per game in 2013-14.
But Wollenman, a National Merit Scholar, will explain numbers sometimes don’t tell the full story. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound fourth-year junior, a former walk-on with plans to enter medical school upon graduation, considered each practice his “game day.”
“We take the attitude that time in practice is our time to shine," said Wollenman of the scout team. "Those are our games. You get into a lot of one-on-one battles. It gets competitive, and BJ (Branden Dawson) and I go back and forth. There is a lot of trash talking and battling. It’s the same at all the positions. The guards get into it, too. That competitiveness is what makes our practices what they are.”
Those game-day practices are one reason seventh-seeded Michigan State (24-11) improved enough from mid-season to earn an 18th straight NCAA Tournament bid and advance past its South Region opener with a 70-63 victory Friday against No. 10 seed Georgia. The Spartans face No. 2 seed Virginia (30-3), the ACC regular-season champion, at 12:10 pm ET Sunday at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Wollenman didn’t score against Georgia in his 27th game of the season, but he had five rebounds and defended the Bulldogs' big men that had been assigned to Dawson before he went to the bench with fouls. Wollenman wasn’t a soft touch for Georgia, just as Dawson says Wollenman’s game-day practices weren’t a day off for him.
“Colby and I we're always getting into it in practice,” Dawson said. “We're always just going at each other because he's always trying to score on me and I'm always trying to score on him. He's been great since the first time he came here.”
The pieces to Wollenman’s tale have a symbiotic feel, but his arrival at Michigan State and decision to attend the basketball team’s tryouts couldn’t have been more random.
Yes, he was a three-sport athlete as a football quarterback, basketball player and soccer player at Big Horn High in Wyoming, but it was a small school with no reputation for college basketball talent. Some Division II and NAIA schools in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota expressed interest in him in both football and basketball, but he had no plans to play small-college sports at the expense of the school he felt was the right fit for him to prepare for medical school.
“I applied to a lot of schools around the country, but I didn’t have any preference,” he said. “First, I looked for a school with an academic scholarship. The second thing I considered was a good pre-med school. Then I considered the location, the city around the campus and the atmosphere at the school. Michigan State seemed like the best fit.”
Basketball didn’t enter his mind until he played some pick-up games on campus and encountered other walk-on players; he learned about the upcoming tryouts and was encouraged to join his new friends. He said he knew more about Michigan State coach Tom Izzo than Izzo about him, but Izzo can't be faulted for that. Even Duffy Daugherty, who stocked his teams with the Underground Railroad and Hawaiian Pipeline, didn't find recruits in Big Horn, Wyoming. Once the workouts began, Wollenham surprised even himself before the coaching staff's discerning eyes.
“I played better than I was,” he said with a laugh.
He still had no expectations when Michigan State graduate assistant Blake Saunders approached him and suggested he change his afternoon classes to another time.
“They just told me to come back the next day at 3 p.m,” Wollenman said. “I still didn’t know if I made the team, but in the next couple of days I was practicing with the team.”
Playing time didn't appear to be in his future, but since the end of the 2013-14 season, a hole developed on the roster among Michigan State’s big men. Alex Gauna didn’t return for his senior year and Kenny Kaminsky was dismissed from the team.
Izzo redshirted Wollenman in 2012-13 and converted his academic scholarship to athletic in 2014-15. Wollenman, who said he will be back as a fifth-year senior while juggling medical school plans, said he still has academic scholarship money available if the Spartans’ need his athletic scholarship for an unexpected prospect. The Spartans will be a bigger team next year with the return and improved maturity of Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling, Marvin Clark Jr., Wollenman and the debut of Rivals 5-star recruit Deyonta Davis, a 6-9, 205-pounder from Muskegon High.
“I’ve come a long way since my freshman year,” Wollenman said. “I put in a lot work in the summer. I try to work hard; I know I’m not as talented as the other guys so I have to try and help in little ways. I understand the system and I try to have my head about me when I’m playing. Those are things the coaches have said they liked about me in the past. Those things have allowed me to have an impact this year.”
Until this season, about the only notes worth highlighting in Wollenman’s bio was his academic record, which now includes earning Academic All-Big Ten honors along with junior Matt Costello in 2014-15. He may be new to Michigan State fans, forcing them to look up his name on the roster in December, but seniors Travis Trice and Dawson, 2011 recruiting class scholarship athletes, considered him part of their class.
“Colby since day one has fit in with our group,” Trice said. “He is a great asset to our team. You've seen lately he's been playing a lot and even throughout this year he has really stepped up and played in some big games. He's just a great guy. He adds a different dynamic to our locker room and he's always cracking jokes at everybody. Half the time we don't understand what he's saying.”